Discovering Diana: the nineteenth-century unearthing of the treasures of Nemi

Fortune and glory? The whip-cracking adventurers and maverick explorers of popular fiction undoubtedly owe their origins, at least in part, to the cultural construct of the Victorian English gentleman.

It was a commonly accepted convention, or even rite of passage, for such educated Englishmen to seek out and in some way, through discovery, documentation or even possession, take ownership of some antiquarian concept. It was as if one could achieve a measure of renown by association: that through possession of what was deemed to be cultural, the possessor would in turn become cultured. The accuracy of this notion is clearly debatable, but its manifestation is undeniable: the nineteenth century bore witness to an unprecedented increase of interest, amongst the middle and upper classes, in all things that could be deemed enlightening and intellectual. Classical History, and Archaeology in particular, was no exception and led directly to the rise of the amateur gentleman archaeologist.

John Savile Lumley, subsequently Lord John Savile, was born on 6 January 1818, the second son of the 8th Earl of Scarborough. Details of his early life are scarce but from the age of 24, in a diplomatic career spanning an impressive 47 years, he represented British interests throughout the world, serving in countries including Germany, Russia, USA, Spain, Constantinople and Belgium. His final appointment before retiring was that of British Minister at Rome in August 1883: a position he was to hold for the next four years. It was during this tenure that, indulging a passion for archaeology, Savile began excavations on the northern shore of Lake Nemi, on land belonging to Prince Orsini. In particular, he hoped to discover the location of the lost Temple of Diana, which he referred to in a letter to George Wallis, then curator of Nottingham Castle Museum, as the ‘Arteminium of Strabo’: a reference to the Greek geographer Strabo’s early description of the temple in the first century AD.

Savile began his excavations on 30 March 1885 at Giardino del Lago at the foot of the hill on which the town of Nemi stands, and was not to be disappointed. Within a short time, portions of a surprisingly large wall had been revealed, previously buried beneath thick layers of vegetation. The wall seemed to support the banks above it whilst simultaneously forming the north and east sides of what was revealed to be a vast terrace measuring in excess of 44,000 square metres. Upon beginning to dig, the very first trench that Savile opened contained a multitude of terracotta models and statuettes.

Votive offerings, 1885, Copyright Nottingham Castle Museums

Votive offerings, 1885, Copyright Nottingham Castle Museums

Due to the surprisingly large quantity of finds, he surmised that he had located a pit where excess votives would have been regularly removed to and buried to make way for new ones.  The presence of numerous statuettes of Diana and her nymphs amongst the models supported the likelihood that this was indeed the lost temple of Diana.

Plan of site from commemorative catalogue, 1893

Plan of site from commemorative catalogue, 1893

This was not the only significant indication that Savile had found what he sought: the finds from a second trench included inscribed marble fragments, one of which made direct reference to Diana, as well as coins, dice, hairpins and writing equipment.

Inscriptions, 1885, Copyright Nottingham Castle Museums

Inscriptions, 1885, Copyright Nottingham Castle Museums

Furthermore, a rectangular temple basement, unearthed some distance from this trench, contained a number of bronze items including a ladle inscribed with Diana’s name, numerous representations of her nymphs and votaries, and over a thousand coins.

East front of temple basement, 1885, Copyright Nottingham Castle Museums

East front of temple basement, 1885, Copyright Nottingham Castle Museums

As work continued, a series of small chapels or shrines were revealed beneath the north wall, one of which showed evidence of being put to use as a sculptor’s studio. Others were found to contain terracotta fragments, the head of a horse, an impressive sculpture of Tiberius and a remarkably well-preserved statue of a Roman matron entitled ‘Fundilia’. One of the most notable finds, towards the end of excavation, was a circular sacrificial altar with channels to drain away blood, surmised to be the temple’s external altar to Diana. And, if these finds alone were not convincing enough, the structure and physical features of the site’s location matched Strabo’s original description so precisely that it was considered impossible for Savile’s discovery to be anything other than the lost temple.

Due to the nature of his initial agreement with the Italian authorities, Savile was only permitted to keep half of his finds, with the rest remaining the property of the landowner, Prince Orsini. More interested in financial than intellectual gain, Orsini sold much of his share to art collectors in Rome, to the apparent indignation of Savile. Indeed, it seems highly likely that Orsini’s attitude contributed directly to Savile’s decision not to accept a new contract to continue working at the site for another year. Consequently, Orsini insisted that Savile’s excavations be refilled – although not before he had profited from allowing a number of others to take advantage of them. By the time of the first display of Savile’s finds in 1891, it was noted, the grass had regrown over Savile’s excavations and many academics were thankful for the photos of the site that he had taken.

Savile’s treatment of his share of the artefacts was in stark contrast to Orsini’s, and clearly reflected his regard for intellectual rather than commercial gain. The announcement of his decision to donate his share of the finds to the newly established Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, close to his ancestral home of Rufford Abbey, was enthusiastically reported in the press. The local Nottinghamshire Guardian described his endeavours in detail and referred to his ‘generous gift’ as being ‘universally received with feeling of the greatest satisfaction’. The new collection, comprising 1,586 artefacts and a series of photographs of the dig, was highly regarded and provoked international interest from the beginning: a limited edition, commemorative catalogue of the original exhibition lists, amongst its many subscribers, patrons and institutions from USA, France, Germany and beyond.

Following the donation, Savile himself remained somewhat of a local celebrity: he officially retired in 1888, after being raised as a peer the previous year, and sat as Baron Savile of Rufford in Nottinghamshire, having inherited the lands and mansion of Rufford Abbey following the death of his brother, Augustus.   He died at Rufford Abbey on 28 November 1896 and was buried at Bilsthorpe in Nottinghamshire.

Pete Bounous

University of Birmingham

Further reading:

Nottinghamshire Guardian Friday 17th September 1886 p.7

The Morning Post Monday 30th November 1896 p.5

Nottingham Castle Museum, Illustrated Catalogue of the Classical Antiquities from the Site of the Temple of Diana, Nemi, Italy (Nottingham, 1893)

Levine, P., The Amateur and the Professional: Antiquarians, Historians and Archaeologists in Victorian England 1838-1886 (Cambridge, 2002)


Diana Nemorensis: Origins of the Legend

Diana at Nemi

Diana as Huntress at Nemi. Photo: © Ann Inscker


The goddess Diana was the Roman counterpart of the Greek goddess Artemis. She was best known as the goddess of the hunt, nature and animals. Later, she also became known as goddess of the moon. She was the daughter of Jupiter (king of the gods) and Latona, and was the twin sister of Apollo (god of the sun).

In most depictions she is shown carrying a bow and arrows while wearing a small crescent moon in her hair. Her most sacred animals were deer, bears and hunting dogs. Diana was also the goddess of birth, even though she herself remained a virgin. Both animals and humans were protected by her and their fertility was Diana’s concern.

In trying to appease the goddess, young men and women offered the goddess votives to secure healthy and strong offspring. Amongst these votives could be various jewellery objects, statuettes and figurines either of the goddess or her devotees and figurines of animals. Votives offered to Diana quite often show a very strong connection with nature in all its manifestations, relating to her nature as goddess of the hunt and fertility. This can be illustrated by looking at the votive offerings found on site, which include human body parts like the uterus.

Terracotta votive of Diana left at Nemi. Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Terracotta votive of Diana left at Nemi. Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Diana Nemorensis

Diana was known in different characters. One of her guises was Diana Nemorensis (Diana of Nemi). The sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis was found on the northern shore of Lake Nemi and her cult was particularly violent. The Romans frequently adopted Greek divinities and merged them with their own, which resulted in several legends that refer to the origin of the sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis.

One of the legends goes that there was a large oak tree to be found in her sacred grove at Nemi. It was absolutely forbidden to break off any of its branches (some say the mistletoe surrounding it). The only people allowed to do so were fugitive slaves. Breaking off one of the branches gave the slaves the right to fight the presiding high priest of the temple to the death. If the challenger won, he could take the place, adopting the title of rex nemorensis, king of the sacred grove.

Denarius (Roman coin) of Diana and triple cult statue on reverse, minted 43 BC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Denarius (Roman coin) of Diana and triple cult statue of Diana Nemorensis on reverse, minted 43 BC. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The tale of the rex nemorensis is told in the ancient sources. Ovid’s description (Fasti Book 3) reads:

‘one with strong hands and swift feet rules there, and each is later killed, as he himself killed before’.

According to the British anthropologist Sir James Frazer, the rule of the sanctuary was that:

‘A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him, he retained office till he himself was slain by a stronger or a craftier.’

Origins of the Legend

This bloody ritual could be explained as a variation on the story of Orestes, known in Greek mythology. Orestes (son of the king and queen of Mycenae, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra) killed his mother and her lover to avenge his father. To purify himself the god Apollo sent him to Tauris. Iphegeneia, Orestes’ sister was the priestess of the local divinity, Artemis of Tauris. The cult of Artemis of Tauris was known for killing all the foreigners that came to shore.

Bust of Aesculapius found at Nemi Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

Bust of Aesculapius found at Nemi.
Photo: ©Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

After tricking the king of the Tauric Chersonese to escape an unfortunate ending, Orestes fled with his sister to Italy. They took the image of the Tauric Artemis with them and the cult of Artemis of Tauris took hold in the woods of Nemi. This barbaric goddess was known for the bloody rituals taking place in her sanctuaries; every stranger who landed on the shore was sacrificed on her altar.

The ritual in Nemi can be interpreted as a milder form of this gruesome practice. However, the goddess still could only be appeased properly with human blood. The death of the rex nemorensis or his challenger had to be violent, ‘as the spurting blood from the loser was meant to fertilise the surrounding ground’, as Ludovico Pisani argues.

Another tradition, again of Greek origin, explains the existence of the first rex nemorensis. According to the Aricians, the priesthood would have been held by Hippolytus. Hippolytus, after being unjustly killed by his father, was resurrected by Asclepius (the god of healing, Aesculapius in Latin) with the aid of Artemis. He was named Virbius (twice man) and went on to become a king, devoting a place of worship to Artemis. Diana was also called Virbia, which helps to explain the connection between her perceived healing powers and those of Virbius, who became a minor deity himself.

Celebrating Diana at Nemi

Diana was honoured at Nemi by an annual festival on August 13th (which, incidentally, is also our Twitter guru Fundilia’s birthday!) called Nemoralia. Burning torches were carried in a procession around the lake, known as Speculum Dianae (Diana’s Mirror). Those whose prayers had been answered would attend wearing wreaths of flowers, in order to fulfil vows made to the goddess. Hounds were honoured out of respect for Diana’s role as the goddess of the hunt. The day is also known as servorum dies festus, as it was holiday for slaves.

Lake Nemi today. Photo: © Ann Inscker

Lake Nemi today. Photo: © Ann Inscker

Ruth Léger, researcher, University of Birmingham

Don’t forget, ‘Romans’ FREE event on 5th August 2013 when standard admissions tickets are bought